New Orleans History -- Lake Pontchartrain
Thursday, April 27, 2017
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Spanish Fort/Bayou St. John/Old Beach

Click to hear Armand J. Piron with Peter Bocage (A.J.Piron & his Novelty Orchestra) 1928 recording of 'New Orleans Joys', as it was heard at Tranchina's Restaurant in Spanish Fort 

   
Postcard Circa 1915.

 Originally an active Military Fort, built in 1779, to protect the city from invasion via the Lake, this area later became an entertainment district filled with amusement parks, restaurants, camps, and jazz. 

   
Spanish Fort is located near Robert E. Lee Blvd. and Bayou St. John. This was where the lakeshore began before the massive land reclamation project during the 1920s & 30s which resulted in subdivisions and Lakeshore Drive. The photo shows the now defunct Bayou St. John Lighthouse.

  

Fort St. John
Located at the lake and Bayou St. John, Spanish Fort is now quite far from the shoreline due to massive land reclamation during the 1930's and 40's.
Looking at the map, all land north of Robert E. Lee Blvd. was "reclaimed" from the lake. The fort originally bordered the shoreline of Lake Pontchartrain.

When the fort was no longer needed, the land was sold to an amusement park vendor who renamed it Spanish Fort. Later this became the 1st location of Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park. Because of this, many old timers called Fort St. John/Spanish Fort "The Old Beach".

It's history is long and interesting.

In 1812, New Orleans became part of the United States after the Louisiana Purchase. The wealthy spent their leisure time on the lake shore at several exclusive resorts, eating at the famous restaurants, gambling and enjoying the lake breezes. The first resort to open is at Spanish Fort at the mouth of Bayou St. John.

Source: Save Our Lake Foundation

  

Postcard circa 1912

Over the years, Spanish Fort changed hands quite a few times. There were also lawsuits disputing its ownership, so it may be somewhat difficult to easily explain who owned it throughout its history as a recreation area. I’m afraid I can’t provide details about ownership of the park rides since amusement rides were not as well-documented as real estate. Quite often, rides were owned by out-of-town investors but operated by local people.

I’ve observed that popular amusement places tend to be among the most poorly documented historic sites. I think people just took them for granted, rarely saving photos or otherwise documenting facts concerning the places where they enjoyed their leisure hours. Unless more people who remember the old parks and theaters share their memories with others, firsthand information about those places will be forever lost.

In 1823, by a special act of Congress, Harvey Elkins purchased the Spanish Fort site. Within two years, Elkins had built a hotel on the site, thus beginning Spanish Fort’s century-long reputation as a popular resort. It didn’t take long to attract international attention. In 1828, his highness Bernhard, Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, published both English and German editions of his Travels through North America, during the years 1825 and 1826. In this narrative, Duke Bernhard mentions traveling through the Rigolets and Lake Pontchartain, noting that a tavern was then being erected at the site of the old Spanish fort on Bayou St. John.

Ownership soon passed from Elkins to John Slidell; later, the New Orleans City and Lake Railroad would own the site before selling it, in 1877, to Moses Schwartz. It was Schwartz who first developed the amusement park that operated at Spanish Fort until the late 1920s. New Orleans Public Service would own the property before, in 1937, turning it over to the Orleans Parish Levee Board.

Before 1900, Spanish Fort was especially famous for its opera house and fine seafood restaurants. Author William Makepeace Thackeray and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant were among the celebrities who dined at Spanish Fort and later bragged about the experience. In the early 1880s, during his great American tour, playwright Oscar Wilde lectured a Spanish Fort audience about household beauty.

During its heyday as an amusement park, from the 1880s to the 1920s, Spanish Fort faced stiff competition from its nearby rival, West End. Although Spanish Fort had brief moments of grandeur, sometimes proclaiming itself to be the “Coney Island of the South,” the flood-prone park frequently fell on hard times, while West End prospered. In 1903, streetcar service to the park was discontinued. Ownership passed to the same streetcar company that operated the rival park, but Spanish Fort would never attain West End’s fame or grandeur. Spanish Fort closed in 1926.

Source: New Orleans Magazine-Julia Street: Questions and Answers about New Orleans
March 2000 - Vol. 34 - Issue 6 - Page - #346
http://publications.neworleans.com/no_magazine/34.6.-JuliaStreet.html